Poetry Called An Experience Offered to Others
Wednesday, April 25, 2007 7:55 AM
By Bill Eichenberger
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
At the tender age of 15, Franz Wright sent one of his poems to his father, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Wright.
The father's response: "You're a poet. Welcome to hell."
Franz Wright - now a Pulitzer Prize-winner himself for his 2003 collection Walking to Martha's Vineyard - described the comment as "the kind of thing one older soldier might say to a young soldier newly arrived to fight in a terrible war."
"I think that was largely an expression of my father's somewhat dark sense of humor, which I guess I share to a great degree...
I think he felt something like the way I now feel when confronted with a young poet of talent - I feel a great worry, a terror almost, of what is in store for this person of talent, because things in the literary world do not proceed rationally, anymore than they do elsewhere, and a lot depends on chance."
"I myself have been incredibly lucky and blessed, for some reason - but I did go through years, indeed decades of terribly desperate discouragement, loneliness, very real poverty, etc. I don't know what to tell someone embarking on a life in art - that chances are they will have a sad and very difficult life? Anyway, it must be awful to know what a hard painful road that is, and then have to watch your own child embarking on it."
Franz Wright, who will appear Thursday at the South Side Settlement House, recently answered questions via e-mail.
Q. Poet and critic Gerard Hanberry wrote that hope "shimmers" in your poems. True?
A. I don't know how many of my poems give an impression of hope, but I am certain that each one was a desperate act of hope. (Romanian essayist Emil) Cioran said, somewhat melodramatically, that every book is a postponed suicide - for me that might include every poem, if I were inclined to express myself in these terms, and I'm not really. But I know what he's getting at.
In my case, though, it would be more accurate to say that every poem represents a faith that beyond my particular view of things, of what is apparent to my senses - which provide me with little to hope for, since on the surface the world is so hopelessly lost - there is an absolute reality which might be described as the exact opposite of the way things appear to my senses: a reality in which what appears to me personally as loss and failure and disaster is actually the ultimate good, in which poverty is wealth, failure success, death life, and so forth.
These are things that have shown themselves to be true in my life, again and again, and my faith in the ultimate rightness of things as they are is very strong, however appalling things may seem to me in my personal life or in the world in general at any given moment.
Q. The poet Denise Levertov once wrote, "A poetry articulating the dreads and horrors of our time is necessary in order to make readers understand what is happening, really understand it, not just know about it but feel it: and should be accompanied by a willingness on the part of those who write it to take additional action towards stopping the great miseries which they record." Is this the role of the poet, as you see it?
A. I think that is a magnificent remark of Levertov (a poet I have felt great reverence for since I was in high school) - and after many trials, and a tendency when young to see poetry as the highest end imaginable of all human activity, almost a sort of religion, I have come to understand that there can be no real art in the absence of a heart actively attempting, through prayer and compassionate interaction others, to lessen suffering in the world.
Perhaps all that is really necessary is to come to an understanding or a sort of peace with the reality of suffering, the mystery of suffering - that it is guiding people toward an awakening, possibly, just as it did in my life, that we are in fact instruments of a higher power which wishes no more than to love and forgive us, and perhaps our suffering is teaching us to turn to that power, to finally understand that there really is nowhere else to turn, and to express our love for it by loving other human beings still suffering without understanding why.
Q. Robert Penn Warren once said, "The poem is a little myth of man's capacity of making life meaningful. And in the end, the poem is not a thing we see - it is, rather, a light by which we may see - and what we see if life." What do you think?
A. I think one way of grasping a genuine poem is to perceive it as pointing to something beyond itself, some vast experience which had to precede it and of which it is merely the translation, or the beautiful death-mask. Take Whitman - I believe he experienced a cosmic and ecstatic merging or oneness with all things, and his poems were attempts to report back on this momentous event.
But at the same time, a poem is also a series of seemingly endless technical problems that must be solved, and resembles in its ultimate elegance and clarity and simplicity the great effort that went into formulating it. I don't know what else to say about that. It must in the end be a thing in itself, apart from the writer, an improved reality, or the place where some vast experience is both stored and offered to others. Maybe in its symmetry and mystery and perfection, it can serve as an indication of some perfect serenity, some condition vastly happier and more intelligent and fortunate than the one in which we find ourselves.
Q. The essayist Russell Baker once confided, "I gave up on new poetry myself 30 years ago, when most of it began to read like coded messages passing between lonely aliens on a hostile world."
A. If poetry is written only for the benefit of other linguistic specialists, it is of no permanent value. All the poetry that lasts from century to century, including the very greatest poetry - Shakespeare, Homer, the New Testament, the great Greek writers of tragedy - can be read by any reasonably intelligent person with a sixth grade ability to read. The rest sinks like a stone, thought it may in certain technical ways contribute to the work of the next genuine poet.
Q. Are you, as one critic had it, a poetic miniaturist?
A. No I am not, certainly not exclusively anyway.
I have a deep and abiding love for what we would call "short" poems - though a haiku of Basho can be as weighty as the Iliad, and the physical length of a poem seems to me irrelevant. Besides, people who speak of me this way forget that I have frequently published poems - they are all through my books, including my earlier four books which have just been released by Knopf in one volume as Earlier Poems - which are as long as 200 lines long.
Q. Looking back, what do you make of the young man who wrote those Earlier Poems?
A. My younger self was an active drug addict and alcoholic, and this colored all my perceptions, and of course tended to give them quite a lurid cast. Though at times also a desperately spiritual one, as well, if you ask me - a longing for release from a seemingly unescapable prison.
Q. Robert Frost said that "Poetry is what gets lost in translation." As a translator of poetry, would you argue that it's the other way around?
A. I think Frost was just asserting the real fact that there is something very different about language in the service of poetry than language in the service of prose. The language of poetry is, for one thing, infinitely more an expression of all that is unique about a particular language, at its deepest sources, and so is far more difficult to adequately translate than prose, which tends more to merely communicate universal information in an abstract way.
You cannot really translate Blake, say, or Emily Dickinson into another language and still maintain their eerily songlike qualities. Poetry is closer to music, which is irreducible, untranslatable, and communicates its meaning to the body, directly, without need or possibility of paraphrase.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
Poetry Called An Experience Offered to Others
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